If DirectTV's Ads Were Too Silly to Believe, Then Why Run Them?

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Here's what I don't get: Why did DirecTV think that Rob Lowe's claims for the TV satellite delivery service wouldn't be taken seriously because his alter egos such as "Painfully Awkward" and "Peaked in High School" Rob Lowe were pathetic buffoons?

And if DirecTV really thought that nobody would believe Rob Lowe's claims, why did the company bother to make them?

Mr. Lowe's assertions that DirecTV was "the undisputed leader in sports" and is "No. 1 in customer satisfaction" were challenged by rival TV provider Comcast, which asked the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus to rule on the matter. NAD's decision supported Comcast in most instances, but DirecTV in its defense said that the company "continues to believe that the various Rob Lowe advertisements are so outlandish and exaggerated that no reasonable consumer would believe that the statements being made by the alter ego characters are comparative or need to be substantiated."

But the alter ego characters weren't the ones making the claims that Comcast objected to. The real Rob Lowe did. The weird Rob Lowes made generic slams at cable, or just mouthed moronic statements.

DirecTV also contends "it is clear from the content of the commercial that a famous actor, Rob Lowe, is playing a part, and reasonable viewers would understand the commercials are humorous and not factual."

So did DirecTV invent a cast of characters as straw men to divert attention from the claims made by the real Rob Lowe? And then assert that viewers aren't intended to believe DirecTV's claims because of the appearance of the mentally and physically deranged versions? Does that mean that DirecTV is admitting (even though it is appealing the ruling) that the statements aren't true? No wonder the company lost.

As always there are wheels within wheels at play here. AT&T is in a deal to buy DirecTV for a cool $48.5 billion, and Comcast is angling to buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion. What might have gotten Comcast riled up enough to file the NAD complaint is that its deal with Time Warner Cable was drawing much more scrutiny from regulators and industry rivals than the AT&T-DirecTV hookup. Reuters reported that the latter deal was getting "a smooth ride" while the nation's two biggest cable operators were drawing far more scrutiny.

So maybe Comcast's nose got out of joint because it saw its dominance (with the help of Time Warner Cable) of the lucrative and growing broadband market in danger of slipping away (although not to AT&T) and it needed to shore up its basic cable business (where DirecTV is a real competitor).

Compounding matters for Comcast, for some strange reason the DirecTV ads seem to be working. I thought they were stupid and even unsettling, but the fact is that during the time the spots were running DirecTV had a big net gain in subscribers. I guess a lot of people believed those claims, even though DirecTV said nobody would.

It's a well-established advertising self-regulatory principle that humor and hyperbole don't relieve an advertiser of the obligation to support messages that their ads might reasonably convey -- especially if the advertising disparages a competitive product. That statement was taken from the top of the NAD decision, and it makes sense to me.

But what's harder to understand is the NAD's contention that the tagline in the DirecTV spots -- "Don't be like this me. Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV" -- conveyed a "comparative and unsupported superiority message."

An NAD official explained that the decision only tags DirecTV with a superiority claim in ads "where they've made relatively specific performance claims."

One knowledgeable ad observer noted that in the context of self-regulation, "where the premium is on a relatively quick, relatively non-burdensome decision," this makes a certain amount of sense.

The advertiser didn't submit any consumer-perception testing showing how consumers took the claims, he said. So NAD is left to interpret them. If NAD reached the opposite conclusion, then it is "open season for unsupported comparative claims as long as they are funny."

"Also you could wonder ... whether DirecTV really launched a huge campaign like this without any consumer testing? And if that testing shows consumers didn't take these claims, why not put it in the record?"

C. Lee Peeler, president-CEO of the National Advertising Review Council, contends that the case is "about what is really a reasonable interpretation of the specific ads reviewed. The genius of [the] system is that there is an appeal mechanism -- which DirecTV is using -- where four industry professionals and one public member will review the entire record and decide what these specific ads communicated."

So what NAD is saying, and what will be reviewed, is whether a tagline can be viewed by what the advertiser said before the tagline appears.

Does that mean that the Tea Council couldn't run ads saying, "Get rid of colas. Switch to tea" if the council conveyed an "unsupported superiority message" earlier in the ad?

Stay tuned.